On Living With Pain

Pain…

  • The physical feeling caused by disease, injury, or something that hurts the body
  • Mental or emotional suffering; sadness caused by some emotional or mental problem

I am no stranger to either of these. In my teenage years and early twenties, I experienced blinding headaches. Not migraines, but what would eventually be diagnosed as a corn allergy. The (not so) simple solution? Avoid corn in all its forms. In order of severity: corn syrup, corn meal, corn starch, corn. How curious - corn syrup was the main culprit, less so just plain corn. I became a master label reader, and, corn syrup being in just about everything baked or boxed - not to mention any sweet drink - I was rather limited in what I could eat, or at least it felt that way then. Yet it was worth the relief to make those adjustments, and eventually the allergy worked its way out of my body.

Through my twenties I developed lower back pain, to the point that I had to replace my morning run with a morning walk. Years later I would tell my therapist about this chronic back pain and she would ask  "How were you unsupported in life?" I wouldn't know how to respond; I had not yet learned the connection between mind and body, how the back is where grief and loss are held, and that even as a young woman it had stored up in my back unattended.

My lower back pain eventually climbed up my spine - awful spasms that tore across the back of my neck, freezing my upper body like a statue. No precipitating event; it happened spontaneously. Diagnosed via CT scan with a large herniation C5-6, I was referred to a neurosurgeon. Per his order, I underwent a myelogram, in which a needle was placed in my spinal column, dye injected, and x-rays taken. Simple, right? No. I experienced complications: a severe reaction to the dye and a tear in the dura (the lining around the spinal cord) which caused a spinal fluid leak. What was supposed to be an outpatient procedure resulted in hospitalizations for the majority of the next two months across two hospitals, including one month on complete bedrest, four epidural blood patches, an IV caffeine infusion  (not even funny) and a spinal infusion pump, none of which was successful. On the side was the severe nausea I endured as a side effect of the narcotics that barely touched the pain. Final result? A 24/7 headache for three years. Yes, three years. Unrelieved by medication. My only escape was sleep.

For about a year, a typical day consisted of getting up, working in the OR for eight hours, going home for a nap, making and eating dinner, watching a little TV and going to bed. I instinctively knew this wouldn't last forever, which gave me hope. In the meantime, I pushed through it, I learned to ignore it as best as I could. I must confess that I didn't have much compassion for other peoples' complaint of headache (except for those with migraines) in those days. Silently I responded "you think you’ve got a headache? I'll show you a headache." But I kept quiet. I think.

During that time, several of my fellow OR nurses took pity on me and gave the most precious gift - head and neck massage. I think the haggard look on my face and circles under my eyes communicated more than words that I was having an especially tough day. Thank you Susan, Glenda, and Kyle. You were the very hands of God.

Ironically, the herniated disc slipped back into place even as my headache persisted, though it later re-herniated. I would eventually have surgery - a C5-6 fusion, after which the headache slowly dissipated, only to resurface as I herniated the next level down, C6-7 (not uncommon, I later learned). After three more years of three rounds of three epidural steroid injections, I was so tired of living in pain. My head, my neck, my upper back and shoulders, my lower back and legs, hurting ALL THE TIME. A change was in order, and I was lucky to be appointed project lead for a new computer system implementation project. When friends asked if I missed the OR, I replied yes, but I did not miss the pain.

Years of relief, fast forward to 2008 and a resurgence of my lower back pain, this time the worst ever with nonstop shooting pain down both legs. I couldn't sit, I couldn't stand without pain, and it woke me in the night. My Trauma Healing and Creativity page tells more of that story. I continue to experience healing to this day.

So that's physical pain. Now let's talk about a different kind - emotional  and mental pain. Triggered (surprise!) on my return from London to KC in the summer of 2009. Every bit as excruciating as my worse physical pain, and even more debilitating. I'm talking pain that snuffed out hope, made death look like relief. Anxiety that convinced me I was not safe, that the world was not a safe place for me, that something really BAD was going to happen to me. Depression that sucked out every bit of energy, motivation, and initiative. It was too much. If you look at the Dementors in the Harry Potter movies, and watch how they draw life and soul out of their victims, you'll get a sense of my experience of overwhelming depletion. Emotional and mental pain so bad as to keep me in bed for days, weeks, months, on and off over the next years. The only consolation the assurance by my therapist that my body probably really needed that much rest, that yes it was dark and scary and too much. And that it was for now, not forever. And that I was a very courageous woman.

In the early years of my trauma recovery, I somehow continued my morning routine of yoga, walking, praying/meditating, and in those prayers I called out to and pleaded with God/Jesus/Spirit for relief. It all seemed to fall on deaf ears. I believed they were there but standing away from me, watching me, arms folded. Not doing anything to help me. I felt abandoned and the spiritual pain was devastating. My prayers shifted to "I choose to trust you. You're not getting rid of me." And "I am on the right path." Plus, I repeated to myself over and over "I am healing. I am growing. I am changing for the better."

At the beginning, I used alternative/holistic supplements and acupuncture to manage my symptoms and really wanted it to work that way. However, my nervous system became so overwhelmed and I was getting no relief. It was time for pharmaceuticals. Damn! Oh, how I resisted! Antidepressant. Anti-anxiety. Stigma. And then I reflected that everyone, including me, deserves to feel as healthy as possible. And so I jumped on that boat, and have been greatly assisted. On a humorous side note, one of my sisters calls me the poster child for pharmaceuticals. If there was ever a case where meds were in order, that was me. I always try my best.

Even with pharmaceutical support and ongoing trauma recovery therapy, I was very frustrated in the late months of 2014.  I seemed to be stagnating, my depression continuing to hold me down, and I had agreed with my professional care givers that if things did not improve after the first of the year, we would look at making adjustments with my medications.

Enter my gall bladder. I began having abdominal pain in mid January. Short story is that what turned out to be my not-really-sick gall bladder was removed at the end of the month. Surprisingly, my abdominal pain got worse.  But get this: I'm not upset that an unnecessary surgery was performed on me. Because something beside my gall bladder was removed that day. Can't explain it, don't need to. But if I did, I would note that science and research is revealing how the body internalizes emotional pain and trauma. I believe the other thing that came out was trapped trauma. I believe this because my depression and anxiety lifted dramatically the day after my surgery. For the first time in YEARS, I experienced a sense of well being, even happiness. I feel hope. I even feel some joy. 

And my abdominal pain? Still here five months later. Worse. Numerous ER visits, doctor appointments, referrals, CT scans, ultrasounds, lab draws and diagnostic procedures have ruled out all manner of diagnoses. No tumors, no celiac. Normal. Normal. Normal. No news is good news. As the pain has slowly shifted in location and intensified, I'm now scheduled for a second surgery later this week. As a post menopausal woman, having never been pregnant, I'll be giving birth for the first and last time - to my uterus/tubes/ovaries. There's time here for reflection: in releasing that which I no longer need, I free up energy and space for new creations. How lovely that this ties in so neatly with my world view of abundance.

What have I learned from all this?

  • That chronic physical pain saps energy and mental acuity and that it can make people (aka me) grumpy and impatient. People in pain are so focused on their discomfort that they may forget the niceties that would normally be part of their everyday dialogue. All of their attention is on that part or those parts of their bodies that are screaming for relief.
  • That chronic psychic pain saps spirit and hope and makes people really tired. And it tricks them into thinking they are all alone in the world, that nobody understands, that maybe they are losing their grips on reality. That it will always be this way.
  • That somatic experiencing sessions for early life trauma use as much energy as physical events such as half marathons, that it's uber-important to be gentle with self, and get lots and lots of rest. Lots. Of. Rest.
  • That each one of us deserves to feel good. And that compassion goes a long way. I recently read "Be nicer than necessary. You never know what people are going through."
  • And finally, that anyone who chooses to do the work of healing early/old wounds is very courageous - a bit of a hero. And an inspiration to others.

Happy healing to me. And to you.

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